`225 What Pikuach Nefesh Means And What it Doesn't
Chananya Weissman

August 29, 2022


One of the favorite cheap tricks of rabbis turned paid propagandists has been to relentlessly play the pikuach nefesh card. Pikuach nefesh is a magic phrase in Judaism. If you rub the magic lamp and chant pikuach nefesh, you can get good-hearted but naive Jews to do almost anything.

Among their many demands has been for healthy people to engage in self-harm, such as obstructing their breathing with face-coverings and taking repeated injections that weren't fit for actual guinea pigs. Of course, the most they will acknowledge about the former is that they are uncomfortable (ignoring the massive evidence of physical and psychological harm, not to mention stark reality). As for the latter, those “safe and effective” shots are the only possible cause of all the sudden unexplained deaths and medical carnage that has been definitively ruled out, with jeers – by the very people who happen to push them.

Between terrorizing Jews about theoretical dangers to the lives of themselves and others, and emphasizing the importance of pikuach nefesh, they've played this card as an automatic checkmate to stifle any challenge to their demands. People are dying! And you're asking questions? Just do what we tell you, or more people will die, and it will be your fault!

Like all missionaries, these mosrim with semicha prey on the ignorance and vulnerability of the simple Jew. They cherry-pick a phrase here and a concept there, with no context provided, make an emotional appeal, cloak themselves with holiness and authority, and demand acquiescence. Who would dare protest? Those with sufficient knowledge lack the courage, and those with enough of both to speak up will be set upon by the now-brainwashed masses.

Everyone knows that saving lives is of paramount importance according to the Torah, but, like everything else in the Torah, what constitutes pikuach nefesh has boundaries that must be clarified. Contrary to what the corrupt, drug-pushing Erev Rav want us to believe, not every theoretical danger has the halachic status of pikuach nefesh or even safek pikuach nefesh (a doubtful risk to life that must nevertheless be treated with great importance). Furthermore, if something is pointedly not a case of pikuach nefesh according to halachic parameters, taking extreme precautionary measures – all of which have downsides and risks of their own – is quite likely prohibited.

In light of this, let's see how the concept of pikuach nefesh was applied by our greatest poskim, whose understanding of the term is clear and consistent. The rabbis of today have no authority to change the definition now, even if the people who sponsor their activities really, really want them to.

The Chasam Sofer in Yoreh De'ah siman 338 (cited in the Pischei Teshuva 357:1) was asked in part about leaving the dead without burial until they begin to decompose, just in case they are actually still alive. Such a thing is not unheard of, and the Chasam Sofer discusses several such cases in his response. One of these is a Baraysa in Semachos Chapter 8, where it is related that they once checked a cemetery after someone had recently been buried. The person was found to be alive, and in fact lived another 25 years.

On the one hand, leaving a dead body overnight would violate both a positive and negative commandment, but then again...pikuach nefesh.

Despite this remote but real consideration, the Chasam Sofer vehemently rejects violating these commandments by leaving the dead unburied. He similarly rejects the possibility of instituting watchmen for three days just in case they detect a sign of life. For a person to come back to life after cessation of breathing is a once-in-a-millenium event, writes the Chasam Sofer, and falls outside the realm of pikuach nefesh that we need to be concerned about. We no longer violate Shabbos in an attempt to revive him, nor do we leave his body unburied.

He adds that if an individual wants to go the extra mile to knock on the grave of his dead relative, just in case, he is not forbidden, though this is unreasonable behavior.

The halachic issue of when the end of life officially occurs, with all that depends on such a determination, is complex and outside the scope of this article. For our purposes, however, it is clear that an extremely remote possibility of pikuach nefesh – although the boundaries of such are not yet clear – does not warrant suspension of the other commandments. We bury our dead, and our sleep is not disturbed with the macabre concern that they are still alive, desperately clawing inside their graves.

The Chasam Sofer gives us more clarity in the next siman, Yoreh De'ah 339 (cited by the Pischei Teshuva 372:2). He was asked about a kohen who suffered from epilepsy, and would periodically fall in ways that were extremely perilous. This man had read in a book about a bizarre possible remedy for his illness: he should take the hand of a dead person who was never circumcised and whisper “Take this illness from me, for it will not harm you, and you will be helping me.” This remedy had been tested one time and the person was cured. The questioner wanted to know if it were permitted for the kohen to rely on this sample size of one to come into contact with a dead body, which is normally forbidden to kohanim.

(Those who are tempted to make fun of the medical beliefs of the time should consider how our generation will be remembered and keep the condescending remarks to themselves.)

On the one hand, replied the Chasam Sofer, if the treatment were conclusively proven, it would certainly be permitted due to pikuach nefesh. However, since the treatment “wasn't so proven”, the question was whether or not the doubtful efficacy was nevertheless enough to warrant violating the commandment not to come into contact with the dead.

The Chasam Sofer then presented a complicated analysis of the laws of spiritual impurity as they apply today, and concluded that there were sufficient grounds for leniency in this case. However, his ruling is remarkable more for what he didn't say. We might have expected it to go something like this:

“What's the question?! Of course the kohen can try the remedy. It's pikuach nefesh! If there's even a tiny chance it can save his life, nothing else matters!”

But that's not how it works. Even though the kohen had an illness that could potentially cause his death, the Torah could not be violated for an unproven treatment. Only because the prohibition was mitigated was the kohen allowed to try it.

Every case is different, of course, and it is outside our purview to rule in these matters. However, the principles we can derive are of fundamental importance. When the propagandists cry “It's pikuach nefesh” they imply that any theoretical possibility, however remote, that you might save an unidentified life is sufficient justification for any precautionary response, and the entire rest of the Torah can be indefinitely suspended. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. It's heresy.

This is further clarified by two rulings cited by the Pischei Teshuva in Yoreh De'ah 363:2. The first is the Noda B'Yehuda, second volume, 4:210. He was asked about the tragic case of someone who suffered from kidney stones. The doctors had performed surgery on him, without benefit, and the person died. Was it permitted to cut open the dead body to examine it, in order to see the root of the problem, learn how to operate better on others, and potentially save lives? Is it permitted to defile dead bodies for scientific research, in the name of hatzolas nefashos?

This question was a source of great controversy among rabbis in London, and the question was sent to the Noda B'Yehuda. After responding to the Torah proofs from each side, he proceeded to reject the very premise of the question, as follows:

All this I wrote according to your words, that you call this watching over and saving life. But I wonder if this can even be called safek hatzalas nefashos [doubtful saving of life]. If so, why do you need all this in-depth analysis? Isn't it a straightforward, explicit law that even a doubt [about saving a life] pushes aside the strict [laws of] Shabbos? This is an explicit Mishna in Yoma page 83 “And any safek nefashos pushes aside Shabbos”, and there on page 84B “And not just a doubt regarding this Shabbos, but even a doubt regarding a different Shabbos”, check there.

However, all this applies when there is a doubtful danger to life before us, such as a sick person or a pile of debris [under which someone might be trapped]. And similarly in tractate Chullin there regarding a murderer, the pikuach nefesh is before us, and even regarding [threats to] money there in tractate Bava Basra, the threat is right before us.

But in our case, there is no sick person here who needs this. They only want to learn this wisdom, as perhaps a sick person who needs this will turn up. We certainly do not push aside because of this light concern any biblical prohibition or even a rabbinic prohibition. For if you call this concern “safek nefashos”, then all medical work [such as] grinding and cooking drugs and preparing surgical instruments for bloodletting would be permitted on Shabbos, just in case today or at night a sick person who needs it will turn up. To make a distinction between a concern in the near future and a concern in the distant future is difficult [highly questionable] to do. Far be it to permit this.

Even the gentile doctors do not perform surgical training on any dead people, except for those who were executed according to the law or who agreed during his life for this to be done [comment: my, how things have changed]. If we, God forbid, were to be lenient in this matter, then all the dead would be cut up in order to learn about the arrangement of the internal organs and their essence, and in order to know how to treat the living.

Therefore, all this lengthy analysis is without need, and there is no angle to permit this. In my opinion, it was an error that went out from before the honored rabbi who rushed to respond to be lenient.

The words of the Noda B'Yehuda are so crystal clear that commentary would be superfluous. I will simply emphasize that pikuach nefesh refers to a clear and present danger to a specific life. It does not refer to a speculative general concern based on mathematical models, hysteria, or paranoia. Even if it's most reasonable to assume that someone out there will need a certain medical treatment at some future point, as long as the need is only theoretical, it is prohibited to violate the Torah to prepare it. Otherwise, the entire Torah falls away under the pretext of pikuach nefesh. Unless there is a dangerously sick person who needs treatment now, or an equivalent situation, there is simply nothing to talk about.

This position is echoed in the second ruling cited by the Pischei Teshuva, the Chasam Sofer in Yoreh De'ah 336. He writes as follows:

One who wishes to sell himself during his lifetime to doctors that they should cut him up after his death to learn the ways of medicine from him – this is not within the parameters of pikuach nefesh at all. Since there is no actual pikuach nefesh here, the prohibitions of benefiting [from the dead body] and defiling it apply.

Compare and contrast to the contemporary position of rabbis turned government-propagandists and sales agents for pharmaceutical products. As just one example of far too many, the detestable Asher Weiss emphatically called for schoolchildren to be forced to cover their faces in ways that obstruct their breathing. He argued, quite perversely, that this is an educational lesson about caring for people and human life, and a matter of pikuach nefesh. (Read and listen here if you can stomach it. He also made such malevolent remarks about “anti-vaxxers” that they were edited out of the recording.)

“Leading rabbis” all over the world – who in reality are nothing more than well-placed operatives – distorted the parameters of pikuach nefesh in ways that would make the original Reform Jews blush. Not surprisingly, for all their blustering, they neglected to inform and educate the community about the concept of pikuach nefesh they so frequently invoked. These scoundrels dressed as rabbis are not teachers, guides, spiritual leaders, or even God-fearing men, but mouthpieces for the establishment for whom they work.

A public that is knowledgeable, informed, and thinks critically is the last thing they want. This is why to a man they shirk questions from those who dare think for themselves, even if presented most cordially and sincerely. The most an ordinary subject, a mere peasant, will manage from them – if they deign to acknowledge him at all – is a condescending, dismissive bit of rhetoric that avoids the substance of the matter. These phony rabbis, these shills, these peddlers of religious misinformation, have plenty of time to rail against “anti-vaxxers” (an undefined defamation they apply liberally to anyone who dares question his orders), yet they cannot spare a moment to provide a substantive, honest Torah response.

Considering how they trample all over the Torah, and resort to emotional appeals with catchphrases like “pikuach nefesh”, stonewalling and hiding behind non-answers is a most sensible strategy for them to employ.

Exposing these monsters and driving them from our midst is a most sensible strategy for the well-meaning Jews they betrayed.

One might even argue that it's pikuach nefesh.



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